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Solzhenitsyn: prophet of truth

EDITOR’S NOTE: An audio version of this column is available here.

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The beginning of the end of communism as a global force dates not to the close of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall or the deaths of various tyrants.

Rather, it commenced in late 1962, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided during a brief political thaw to allow the publication of “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” a novel by an unknown Russian writer named Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn, 89, died Aug. 3 after half a century of doing battle with the evils of the modern world. “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” will live as long as people read books.

The novel recounts a typical day in the life of a typical zek (inmate) trying to survive a “tenner” (10-year sentence) in one of the countless Soviet slave labor camps scattered across Siberia. It’s a good day, relatively speaking, for Ivan. He doesn’t freeze or starve, doesn’t get thrown in the hole (isolation cell), he manages to work away from the lethal winter wind and sneaks some extra gruel.

Some of the other zeks aren’t so fortunate. They fall under the blows of tormenters, die of the cold, resort to eating human waste to fill their empty stomachs.

One of the most poignant characters in the novel is the Baptist prisoner Aloyshka, who’s serving 25 years for the “crime” of worshipping God. But he is content. To Ivan’s amazement, Aloyshka doesn’t even pray for extra rations or a lesser sentence.

“We shouldn’t pray for somebody to send us a parcel, or for an extra portion of (soup),” Aloyshka tells Ivan. “What people prize so highly is vile in the sight of God! We must pray for spiritual things, asking God to remove the scum of evil from our hearts.”

At the end of the novel, Solzhenitsyn sums up Ivan’s existence: “The end of an unclouded day. Almost a happy one. Just one of the three thousand six hundred and fifty-three days of his sentence, from bell to bell.

“The extra three were for leap years.”

I read the book as a student and — like so many other clueless residents of the free world — was shaken out of my complacency. Did human beings really treat other human beings like this? Were such crimes committed, still being committed, in the name of a phony utopia?

Ivan Denisovich changed history — and set the historical record straight. It gave a name and a face to the nameless, faceless people — 60 million or more of them — who lived and died in the vast network of Soviet camps Solzhenitsyn called “The Gulag Archipelago.”

His 2,000-page masterwork of the same name, published in the West in the 1970s, destroyed the last vestiges of communism’s claim to moral credibility. After it appeared, Western elites could no longer ignore or deny the reality that communism and Nazism were two sides of the same totalitarian coin. Solzhenitsyn proved beyond reasonable doubt that the perpetrators of the Holocaust and the Gulag shared the same criminal mentality.

Written in secret and smuggled out of the Soviet Union, The Gulag Archipelago is the greatest piece of investigative journalism of the 20th century. It vividly chronicles the savagery of communist oppression from the earliest days of the Russian Revolution through dictator Josef Stalin’s three decades of murderous rule and the later years of Soviet decline. This “history of our sewage disposal system,” as Solzhenitsyn described it, documents the wave after wave of political opponents (real or imagined), artists, intellectuals, ethnic minorities, soldiers, peasants, workers and religious believers swept away by the all-encompassing police state.

Of its many targets, communism always has been “most ruthless of all in its treatment of Christians,” Solzhenitsyn commented in 1980. “In the early years this meant wholesale executions; later the victims were left to rot in camps. But to this very day the persecution continues inexorably.”

Solzhenitsyn wrote from the personal experience of a survivor. A Red Army artillery officer in World War II, he was tossed into the abyss of the Gulag for eight years after criticizing Stalin. Sent into internal exile in the east after his prison years, he made a meager living as a teacher. He had begun to write poems and stories as a zek about what he had seen and heard, hiding them away or committing them to memory lest they be discovered.

He eventually dared to show the manuscript of Ivan Denisovich to a prominent literary editor, who took it to Khrushchev, a former Stalinist enforcer turned reform-minded premier. Honors, world fame and more novels followed. But the end of the Soviet political thaw led to Khrushchev’s downfall, and Solzhenitsyn found himself denounced once again.

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, he stayed away from the ceremony in Sweden for fear of not being allowed to return home by Soviet authorities. But he no longer feared the all-powerful state. He spoke out with increasing boldness, despite intimidation and death threats. In 1974 he was stripped of Soviet citizenship, hustled onto a plane and deported.

He eventually took up residence in the United States, which initially welcomed him. But prophets are hard to live with. From his retreat in Vermont, the Russian exile began attacking the greed and secularism of the West. In a famous speech at Harvard, he called the United States weak, selfish, decadent. “It is time, in the West to defend not so much human rights as human obligations,” he warned.

Literary critic George Steiner had predicted long before that “this haunted giant of a man will come to find the West intolerable — for its materialism, for its ironies, for blowing neither hot nor cold.”

And so he returned home in 1994 to a hero’s parade in post-Soviet Russia. He wore out his welcome there as well, however, with constant criticism of Russian government, society and the spiritual emptiness of daily life. His TV talk show, which often turned into a solo rant by Solzhenitsyn, was cancelled for lack of viewers. He was accused in his last years of hyper-nationalism, of anti-Semitism, of becoming too friendly with Russian hard-liners. Some of the attacks were fair; many were not.

None of this tarnishes his greatness. History will remember Solzhenitsyn as one of the shining lights in a dark era. He stood for freedom against tyranny. He stood for faith in a time of unbelief. He told the truth when others embraced lies. He proclaimed absolutes in an age of relativism.

And he did it with greater courage than most of us can imagine.

In memory of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the countless Ivans for whom he acted as a witness, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Share it, too, with a young person — perhaps someone who thinks one man or woman cannot change history.
Erich Bridges is senior writer for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

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  • Erich Bridges